Tragic heroine who murders sons

Siti Khalijah Zainal (centre) plays Medea, who kills her two sons after her husband leaves her for another woman.
Siti Khalijah Zainal (centre) plays Medea, who kills her two sons after her husband leaves her for another woman.PHOTO: TUCKYS PHOTOGRAPHY

REVIEW / THEATRE

MEDEA

Cake Theatrical Productions

Drama Centre Black Box

Thursday

How are we to sympathise with a woman who kills her own children?

Director Natalie Hennedige takes on the mammoth task of unpacking the emotions around a filicide in Medea, based on Greek playwright Euripides' tragedy of an exiled princess who, abandoned by her husband for a new wife, murders their young sons to spite him.

Medea is the third in a series of tragic heroines whose stories Cake has been retelling. She follows Ophelia, the drowned lover of Shakespeare's Hamlet, and the vengeful Electra of Greek tragedy.

The play unfolds on a white stage crowded with white ziggurat-like mounds. Actors pick their way around them or leap from block to block like gazelles, sporting white Greek masks or filigreed headgear.

In the background rises a climbing frame, behind whose bars Siti Khalijah Zainal's Medea prowls.

Medea is a woman on the edge. She has left behind her home Colchis, having been seduced by Jason (Ghafir Akbar) into helping him steal her father's prized Golden Fleece.

He is now intent on leaving her and their sons to marry the young daughter of his patron King Creon, who wants her exiled from his city.

Siti flicks between the different aspects of Medea as abruptly as flipping a switch. One moment she is a bewildered outcast at whom the word "barbarian" is casually slung; the next, a femme fatale coiled in deadly calm.

But the emotional depth she can command is hampered at times by the formulaic script, which is prone to having characters describe what they are doing or what is happening to them instead of relying on their skill to convey it.

"My life is flashing before my eyes," cries one character, turning what could have been a compelling death scene into cliche.

Also perplexing is the use of one live child and one puppet to portray Medea's sons. Whatever sympathy the child actor evokes is dissipated by the incongruity of his blank-eyed sibling.

Still, there are moments of startling, simple poignancy, such as when Jason's new wife Creusa (Sharda Harrison) watches him depart. "He comes, he goes, he comes, he goes," she muses. "I go nowhere." She and Medea are rivals in love, but they are also princesses born alike into the prison of womanhood.

Actor Lian Sutton steals every scene he is in, even as a nameless messenger. His sanguine, darkly comic King Creon is a refreshing note in a sea of stylised sadness.

Suhaili Safari, as one of the chorus, must also be commended for her powerful vocals, with which she delivers haunting covers of songs such as Fiona Apple's Sullen Girl and Bjork's Unravel.

•Medea is sold out.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 14, 2017, with the headline 'Tragic heroine who murders sons'. Print Edition | Subscribe